Kevin Ollie was sitting in his office early in September when a serene Jim Calhoun walked through the door ready to deliver bittersweet news.
Known for his intense coaching style and tempered disposition, Calhoun’s message was more serious than the typical tactical adjustment or word of advice.
“That was the first time in a long time I had seen him at real, real peace,” Ollie said. “The only time I really see that in him is when he’s around his grandchildren.”
Calhoun dropped the inevitable news just a few moments later. After a Hall of Fame 40-year career that yielded 873 total wins and three national championships at Connecticut, the legendary coach knew it was time to step down.
At the age of 70, Calhoun was battling hip problems and said he was ready to move onto the next stage of his life. He knew the best possible replacement was Ollie, who played four years under Calhoun from 1991-95.
Ollie took his scrappy, in-your-face style of play to the NBA, where he played for 11 teams in a 13-year career, including time playing for Larry Brown and Chuck Daly. After spending the last two years as an assistant coach at UConn, Ollie was tabbed to take over the program when Calhoun announced his retirement in September.
“I’m an empty cup and I want everybody to fill me up with positive things and things I need to do,” Ollie said. “Then I take those things and make sure they fit in with my philosophy, and I try to go out there and do it.”
Ollie was given a one-year, $625,000 contract that runs through April 4, 2013, two days before the Final Four. He’ll face a difficult challenge in his first year, as the Huskies received a one-year postseason ban due to low Academic Progress Rate scores.
Despite the ban and the coaching change, UConn forward Tyler Olander said his team is even more focused than in past years.
Olander said having someone as upbeat and personable as Ollie is exactly what the team needs. Compared to Calhoun’s frequently fiery temper, Olander said Ollie is more positive and easy to approach.
“Everything is moving forward,” Olander said. “He doesn’t really yell or be negative. I think that helps the chemistry of the team.”
Connecticut Deputy Director of Athletics Paul McCarthy said Ollie makes an incredibly strong first impression and has a talent for connecting with people.
“He’s one of those people that looks you in the eye and you know you’re dealing with a caring, genuine person,” McCarthy said. “He has a talent for connecting with people. He’s smart, engaging and immediately likable.”
UConn guard Shabazz Napier said Ollie has served as a father figure, helping him deal with the rehabilitation process after suffering a stress fracture in his right foot.
After practice, Ollie often talks with Napier, advising him to keep his head up and stay optimistic during the slow recovery process. A guard himself, Ollie also gives him tactical advice as he works to mold Napier into a complete player. “Me getting over my foot injury and having to sit out, he’s been talking to me and telling me to be patient,” Napier said. “He’s been pushing me to be 100 percent and making me work hard. Those are things you really can’t put a measure to.”
While many people on the outside consider this a year of transition swirling with off-court issues for UConn, Ollie doesn’t see the situation the same way.
“I don’t know about the instability,” Ollie said. “Me and you can look at the same wall and I can see something totally different. I see stability. I see our guys coming in with one heartbeat. It’s not me; it’s we.”
UConn’s core group of players is dramatically different than it was last year, with Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond leaving for the NBA and Alex Oriakhi transferring to Missouri. Changes in personnel will force Ollie to adjust quickly.
“I have to put my imprint on this team,” Ollie said. “I have to go out there and show them what I expect them to do. They know that and I understand that’s the standard of UConn basketball. I put the jersey on. I graduated from the university.”
Ollie feels prepared for the task after playing for Calhoun and working under him for two seasons. His work over the years made him the right man for the job in Calhoun’s eyes.
Ollie said he feels honored and blessed to be at the helm of such a prestigious program. He plans to use the lessons Calhoun has given him over the years to make the most of the opportunity.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Ollie said. “For 22 years, this has been a brotherhood. This is all I know: UConn basketball. It’s a special place and it’s an awesome feeling for me to come back and coach.”
Immediately immersed in his new role, Ollie has more responsibility and has taken the reins from Calhoun, yet the former coach hasn’t stepped away from UConn basketball entirely.
The Hall of Fame coach is now Special Assistant to the Director of Athletics, and serves as an aid to Ollie and the rest of the coaching staff and team.
Olander said Calhoun is still very much involved in UConn basketball and has attended multiple practices a week.
“He’s critiquing the team and giving individuals advice,” Olander said. “After every practice, he takes me aside and tells me what I’m doing well and what I should work on.”
Though Calhoun will be around, the job is Ollie’s now. With the future uncertain and the postseason unreachable, all the new coach can do is focus on the regular season.
But when he has a question, needs advice or has a moment of uncertainty, Calhoun is always present and available, watching from afar and making observations.
“He’s like a second father to me,” Ollie said. “Someone that I can really rely on when I need any questions answered. Sometimes he knows what I’m going to ask him before I even open my mouth.”